28 March 2023

Complaint to HSE inspectors follows research showing an alcohol brand reference was seen on screen in every eight to 18 seconds in the highlights of 11 European Champions Cup matches over the last two years

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

HSE inspectors are being asked to investigate if drinks companies are circumventing laws aimed at curbing the marketing of alcohol at rugby matches. It follows research showing an alcohol brand reference was seen on screen in every eight to 18 seconds in the highlights of 11 European Champions Cup matches over the last two years. Alcohol is still being heavily promoted in sports – despite laws designed to curb the marketing of “a harmful product”, new research has found. The analysis was carried out by researchers from the Institute of Social Marketing and Health at the University of Stirling and published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science.

They examined how Section 15 of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act is being adhered to in recent fixtures played in Ireland during the 2021 and 2022 Champions Cup and last year’s Six Nations Championship.Most references were for variants with zero alcohol, albeit incorporating similar brand iconography to their “regular strength” counterparts, such as brand names and logos. However, approximately a quarter of references were deemed to be promoting a “regular strength” alcohol product, as the brand logos were presented without explicit reference to the zero-alcohol variants. This is known as alibi marketing – the practice of using features that are synonymous with the brand. The study found that alcohol branding continued to appear in or on the sporting area during leading club and international rugby matches after the legislation was rolled out in November 2021.

Diageo, which makes Guinness, did not respond to queries yesterday. However, Alcohol Action Ireland has lodged a formal complaint with the HSE, whose environmental health officers are responsible for enforcement. Asked yesterday what the view of the Department of Health was after it drew up the laws, a spokesman said: “It would not be appropriate for the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to comment on compliance with, or enforcement of, measures in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act that have criminal penalties attached. “These are a matter for the Environmental Health Service, the enforcement authority for the Act.”

Alcohol Action Ireland chief Dr Sheila Gilheany said: “Alcohol sports marketing is known to be a powerful tool in increasing alcohol consumption. Ireland’s Public Health Alcohol Act sought to put some curbs on such marketing, yet even these very modest restrictions are being circumvented. “The viewing public, which includes large numbers of children, are being exposed to saturation levels of alcohol brand marketing.  

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“In addition, as the research authors point out, zero-alcohol brand variants are also being advertised in other areas prohibited under the Act such as on public transport,” added Dr Gilheany.

“Will this also be the case when the broadcast watershed for alcohol advertising is finally introduced? It is time for Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, to examine this issue and stand up for this government’s policy which aims to reduce exposure to alcohol marketing, particularly to children.’ She said that Ireland’s Act prohibits direct and indirect advertising for an alcohol product, including through brand names and logos. The researchers, however, note that there remains uncertainty about how this applies to non-alcoholic offerings.

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